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Survival Fires: Everything You Need To Know

A campfire is not a survival fire. That distinction is something that we need to make early on. Building a survival fire is about improving your chance for SURVIVAL. When you are starting a campfire for leisure and roasting marshmallows it’s just a different experience and requires a different degree of speed and effectiveness.

To master the survival fire you have to understand the parts and pieces that make the fire as well as the parts of the process. We are going to go into deep detail on how to build a fast and effective survival fire that will maintain core body temperature, allow you to boil water, and keep you alive!

The fire is burning in the winter forest of pines, the ax is stuck in a log

Learning how to build a survival fire improves your chance for survival

Preparation is Key

Success in building fires is all about the preparation that you do prior to starting your fire. If you can quickly prepare the different parts of the fire then you will be able not only to get fires started but to sustain a fire.

Remember, making a spark create flame is only one part of building a survival fire. You will have to sustain a survival fire and feed it for as long as it’s needed.

All of your tinder, your kindling pile, your dry wood for fuel, it should all be positioned and easy to get to. Once you start a fire you should be able to sustain that thing at least long enough so it can start to warm you up. The only way you can do that is if you prepare for it ahead of time.

If you light up some tinder and have to go find kindling and then when the kindling catches you have to go find fuel there is a good chance that your fire goes out! You do not want that. If you have to start the process over in a survival situation then you have not prepared adequately.

Gather all your components ahead of time. This is the first step in having success building a survival fire.

Gathering or Bringing Tinder

One of the most important parts of any survival fire is the tinder. There are a variety of tinder options that you can pack in your survival kit or you can find in the wild. I gather lots of tinder and I carry lots of tinder. I think you should understand and have access to both.

I keep it simple and keep all the excess dryer lint from doing laundry at home. I throw it in a big ziplock and drop that into my survival bag. This way I know I have enough dry tinder for many fires without doing anything but reaching into my pack. You can pack cotton balls, too. They are great tinder.

In the wild, you are basically looking for dry, fluffy, thin, crispy, and papery things. I have grabbed tufts of dead flowers from unknown plants in the dead of winter and turned them into a highly effective tinder bundle. If you would rather know the species to look for here are some great tinder options in the wild.

Bigfoot Fur and Fire Extenders

At home, we make a fire extender from dryer lint and melted wax. We mix the two and stuff them down into wax cups. When it all dries you wind up with a fire extender that burns around 15 minutes long! My oldest son dubbed this stuff Bigfoot Fur. I think it is about the perfect name because it looks a lot like what you would think grimy gnarly big foot fur would look like.

You can buy fire extenders, too. They are a great tool to use when you are trying to get a fire going with ease and speed. You can even walk away from a fire for a short period of time if you have a fire extender burning underneath it.

Gathering Kindling

If possible, gather tender and kindling in a variety of sizes for your survival fire
If possible, gather tender and kindling in a variety of sizes for your survival fire

With the help of tinder, you get your first flame. That is important but to sustain that first flame you will use kindling. It is the kindling that will fuel the early stages of your fire. Kindling is also pretty easy to gather so there is no excuse to not have a bunch of it. I find that having kindling in two sizes helps to keep the fire going and bring it to the point where you can start adding full-sized fuel.

Pencil Sized Sticks

PENCIL SIZED STICKS This lingo was popularized by Dave Canterbury and I think is a great method for gathering that first batch of kindling. I look for the kindling of this size and bigger on standing dead trees. Another great place to find quick and easy kindling is hung up in smaller trees. Large trees will by nature drop branches. Some smaller branches get hung up in smaller trees before falling completely to the forest floor. This kindling is dryer and easier to work with than anything you will pick up off the forest floor. Gather a couple of nice big piles of this kind of kindling to start your fire.

Cigar Sized Sticks

Beyond the pencil-sized sticks, I also like to have sticks that are bigger but not quite fuel size. This is more kindling. When you are processing a branch you often get both sizes of kindling. Separate your piles so you have access to both types and making fire will be much easier for you. One large pile of CIGAR-sized sticks, and larger, is what you are after.

Gathering and Processing Fuel

 Man chops tree in deep forest with a sharp ax
It helps to have survival tools such as this sharp ax

Breaking down trees for real fuel takes work. There is no getting around it. I want you to first consider some tools for making this process much easier. If you are heading to the woods with any intent on making fire then you should pack the following tools or at least something comparable.

  • 8 Inch Folding Saw
  • Chain Mate Manual Chainsaw
  • Woodsman’s Ax (At least 24 inches long)
  • Full Tang Survival Knife

Tools like these will give you the ability to take advantage of all the resources around you. They have a pretty minimal combined weight, too. So you will not be humping a heavy load around.

The next step is to start looking for dead trees. Standing deadwood is about the very best resource you can find, though newly fallen trees can be a boon, too. As long as the wood you find is dry wood, you will be able to use it as fuel for your survival fire.

When working with a piece of wood you have to remember that this is the most dangerous part of your survival fire process. Swinging axes and using other sharp tools can result in serious injury. You can be in an even worse position if you are cutting wood and driving an ax into your foot.


  • Wear Durable Gloves
  • Always cut away from your body when possible
  • Allow yourself plenty of time to process wood before sunset
  • Focus on One Task at a Time

Split wood on the ground and place it on its side next to the outside of your feet on your dominant hand side. With a sharp ax, you should be able to use one hand and swing the ax into the wood, splitting it. This wood is laying on the ground, stable on its bark and not between your legs so you have a lesser chance of striking yourself.

Once you have processed a lot of wood for your fire remember that you should take what you have and at least double it. If not triple it! You do not wanna run out of wood in the middle of a cold night or be out in the morning when you want that hot drink to warm up.

My Favorite Type of Survival Fire

There are many types of survival fires that you can build with all of your components. My favorite fire lay is the log cabin. This is a very simple build where you place 2 pieces of your fuel and lay them about 5 inches apart parallel to each other and then you turn your next 2 pieces 90 degrees and do the same. You should have something that looks like the beginning of a log cabin or a # symbol.

Add two more alternating layers to this fire and then build your fire at the center of the log cabin. This is a great survival fire because your tinder and kindling are burning the larger fuel from the beginning. The build also protects your young fire from wind.

The Importance of the Quick Survival Fire

If you are faced with a true survival situation then you need to be able to make fire as quickly as possible. It is not the time to pull out the magnifying glass or the 9Volt battery as a fire starter. This is why I always carry a lighter.

It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be proficient with other methods of fire starting but if you are cold, hungry, and thirsty then you need a fire fast. You need to start that tinder, add kindling and get lots of fuel-burning so that you can increase the heat output of the fire.

Larger fires produce more heat and can do things like cook food and boil water much faster. If you have staged materials and a lighter or matches then this will be no problem at all. With practice, you will be able to make a quick survival fire with no problems.

Patience in the Early Stages

This might sound counterintuitive but at certain parts of the fire-making process, you really need to get your hands off and have patience. The novice fire starter will often times smother a fire in its early stages by adding too much fuel too quickly.

This comes from rushing a fire and piling on too much fuel too early. The mistake comes when you use large pieces of wood that the fire is just not ready to ignite or when you do not have enough kindling.

Once your kindling is lit and you add your first pieces of larger cigar-sized kindling it is best to sit back and let the fire do its thing. Again, if you smother it and have to start from zero then you are going to suffer.

Increase Your Chances of Survival

Boil water over a survival fire
Boil water over a survival fire

A survival fire is one of the best ways to increase your chances in a wilderness emergency. Beyond heat you will get the ability to cook, boil water, you will get light and also a beacon for those that might be looking for you!

Practice is the key when it comes to mastering the survival fire. The more you can make practice making fires the better you will become at it. However, don’t forget the process. Don’t forget to gather your tinder and kindling and try to get a fire going quickly and effectively.

Go here for more information about Campfires and Survival fires.